Understanding the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and its connection to Middle East geopolitics is important to understanding all of the conflicts of the past century between the West and radical Islam. What I’ve learned is that there is a grain of truth on all sides of these conflicts, but I’ve reached no clear conclusion on what the best solution is. Regardless of the unclarity of a solution, it is perfectly clear to me that we must start learning and telling the truth about the convoluted history of the region.
What is Sykes-Picot?
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement negotiated between the United Kingdom and France, with some input from pre-revolution tsarist Russia. The point of the agreement was to pre-establish colonial territorial interests and spheres of influence if the Ottoman Empire were to be defeated in World War I. Consequently, the geopolitical borders of modern states like Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel (in its pre-state form as a territory controlled by Great Britain called Palestine), were created with one goal in mind: to ensure the best interest of the colonial powers.
We don’t have to agree with the radical anti-colonialist ideology of the left to acknowledge the truth of these facts. The facts are essential to understanding the quagmire of the Middle East as it current exists. I’d rather we deal with the facts and move forward based on the truth, than deny them for fear of inflaming further anti-colonial radicalism. The truth must prevail before the world can ever fix these problems–if, indeed, they are fixable at all.
Sykes-Picot was secret because it was a betrayal of the Arab world
The betrayal aspect of Sykes-Picot gets to the heart of why radical Islamists (those seeking to dominate the region with an Islamic caliphate, or religious state) are so ticked off at the west. Yes, they are at war with the West, and are set on destroying modern Israel and slaughtering Jews. All that’s true, and they must be stopped and ultimately defeated. They don’t want peace, and never have.
But the historical root of the problem is that Sykes-Picot was an underhanded betrayal of the Arab powers that were cobbled together to fight against the Ottoman Empire. They were promised the exact opposite of what Sykes-Picot outlined. They were promised a unified Arab state in Syria and the Levant by the West via T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia.
For anyone following world news in the Middle East, this should sound strikingly familiar. ISIS stands for Islamic State in Syria. They revised their name to ISIL, which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. They then revised their name again to simply IS, or the Islamic State. In fact, ISIS recently released a video of their forces bulldozing the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria.
Many will contend that this “root cause” is simply a cover story to justify the radicals’ bloodthirsty desire for power and control over this region. That is no doubt true, but these radicals must still be defeated, not simply “understood.” I’m not suggesting that by attempting to “understand” their ideological motivations, that we lend credence to them. I just think it’s important to understand the truth of the geopolitics of this mess before we can ever hope to solve anything–if indeed it is even solvable at all.
Can we give them what they want?
Absolutely not. I am coming to agree with isolationists like Ron Paul on the original cause of many of the Middle East’s problems, but certainly not their isolationist solutions. Those original causes have morphed over time to create and nurture the evil ideology of the Islamists. That can only be stopped by defeating it, not by giving it what it claims to seek. I agree with Edmond Burke on this: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The world must stop this bloodthirsty ideology or it will find itself subjugated to it in any part of the world it can get a foothold. America is not immune to radical Islam. We need to face up to the fact that these radicals have infiltrated our culture at all levels of power and influence, and have clear designs on bringing the West to its knees. Anyone who values freedom must act to defeat it.
Why the Middle East is run by dictators
The truth that Sykes-Picot betrayed the Arab world who fought alongside the West to defeat the Ottoman Empire is also the primary reason the Middle East has been run by two-bit dictators propped up in part by Western foreign aid. It was a “deal with the devil.” Sykes-Picot created artificial geopolitical boundaries that were designed to ensure cultural and sectarian clashes within their borders. The only way they could be governed was by a strongman.
Democracy could never flourish in this environment, because the boundaries were artificially created to defeat it before it ever started. The Sykes-Picot map was the result of gerrymandering at the highest level, what we’ve all come to know as nation-building. The West wanted to preserve access to important trade routes, so it sold the Arab world down the river and made sure that each nation would be forever fighting themselves and unable to unite. We’d prop up nefarious dictators in return for preservation of the regional status-quo: the West would maintain control of the important trade routes and keep a tenuous regional stability in place.
What happens when we remove the dictators?
Here’s the problem with trying to set things straight in today’s environment with the rise of radical Islamism. If we allow the dictators to fall in the nations created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we are essentially turning over the reigns to the Islamists who are focused like a laser on destroying the Western way of life. Freedom, democracy, religious liberty, love for God and fellow man alike; none of these are compatible with Islamist ideology.
The dirty little secret of the West is that the system of rule-by-dictator was by design. Remove those political checks against Islamism, and we pave the way for a Caliphate. If we do that, we’re have ourselves World War III and are enabling the spread of a truly sick ideology that has no problem slaughtering innocents in the streets to achieve its political ends.
We already may be in World War III, frankly; we just haven’t formally called it that yet. The “fires” in the Middle East seem likely to spread worldwide, and eventually a war-weary public will demand that its political leaders fight it to win it. Already, an ISIS cell has been captured in Australia that was intending to do random beheadings in the streets of Sydney. There has been a lot of talk about ISIS cells collaborating with Mexican drug cartels just across the Texas border in Mexico, ready to infiltrate the U.S. (if they haven’t already).
So what’s the solution?
I don’t see a solution to the current crisis without completely and totally defeating Islamists. The world is not ready to face that fact yet. I’m not saying I want another war, nor do I want my boys or anyone else being sent to war under current U.S. leadership, which is plagued by an ideology of Western self-loathing. But I do see the need to defeat Islamism somehow, whatever that looks like, if our children and grandchildren are to inherit a free and peaceful world.
What we can learn from studying the real history of the Middle East, going back to the betrayals represented in Sykes-Picot, is not to make the same mistakes again. The borders of Sykes-Picot may or may not be able to be undone. What must be undone, however, is the idea that the West can betray its geopolitical allies without consequence.
Here is some further reading on this subject. If you have other good articles you want to suggest, please leave it in the comments.